We of the Occident are about to arrive at a crossroads that was reached by the thinkers of India some seven hundred years before Christ. This is the real reason why we become both vexed and stimulated, uneasy yet interested, when confronted with the concepts and images of Oriental wisdom. This crossing is one to which the people of all civilizations come in the typical course of the development of their capacity and requirement for religious experience, and India’s teachings force us to realize what its problems are. But we cannot take over the Indian solutions. We must enter the new period our own way and solve its questions for ourselves...
The chief aim of Indian thought is to unveil and integrate into consciousness what has been thus resisted and hidden by the forces of life - not to explore and describe the visible world. The supreme and characteristic achievement of the Brahman mind was its discovery of the Self (atman) as an independent, imperishable entity, underlying the conscious personality and bodily frame. Everything that we normally know and express about ourselves belongs to the sphere of change, the sphere of time and space, but this Self (atman) is forever changeless, beyond time, beyond space and the veiling net of causality, beyond measure, beyond the dominion of the eye. The effort of Indian philosophy has been, for millenniums, to know this adamantine Self and make the knowledge effective in human life.
The history of Indian thought during the period just preceding the birth and mission of the Buddha (BCE 563-483) reveals a gradual intensification of emphasis on this problem of the rediscovery and assimilation of the Self. The philosophical dialogues of the Upanishads indicate that during the eighth century BCE a critical shift of weight from the outer universe and tangible spheres of the body to the inner and the intangible was carrying the dangerous implications of this direction of the mind to their logical conclusion. A process of withdrawal from the normally known world was taking place. The powers of the macrocosm and the corresponding faculties of the microcosm were being generally devaluated and left behind; and with such fearlessness that the whole religious system of the previous period was being placed in the peril of collapse. The kings of the gods, Indra and Varuna, and the divine priests of the gods, Agni, Mitra, Brhaspati, were no longer receiving their due of prayer and sacrifice. Instead of directing the mind to these symbolic guardians and models of the natural and the social orders, supporting them and keeping them effective through a continuous sequence of rites and meditations, men were turning all of their attention inward, striving to attain and hold themselves in a state of unmitigated Self-awareness through sheer thinking, systematic self-analysis, breath control [Pranayama towards Samadhi], and the stern psychological discipline of Yoga.
There is obviously implicit in such an insight the basis for a transfer of all interest not only from the normal ends and means of people of the world, but also from the rites and dogmas of the religion of such deluded beings. The mythological creator, the Lord of the Universe, is no longer of interest. Only introverted awareness bent and driven to the depth of the subject’s own nature reaches the borderline where the transitory superimpositions meet their unchanging source. And such awareness can finally succeed even in bringing consciousness across the border, to merge - perish and become therewith imperishable - in the omnipresent substratum of all substance. This is the Self, the ultimate, enduring, supporting source of being. That is the giver of all these specialized manifestations, changes of form, and deviation from the true state, these so-called “vikaras”: transformations and evolutions of the cosmic display. Nor is it through praise of and submission to the gods, but through knowledge, knowledge of the Self, that the sage passes from involvement with what is here displayed to a discovery of its cause.
And such knowledge is achieved through either of two techniques:
1. a systematic disparagement of the whole world as illusion, or
2. an equally thoroughgoing realization of the sheer materiality of it all.
This we recognize as precisely the non-theistic, anthropocentric position that we ourselves are on the point of reaching today in the West, if indeed we are not already there. We of the modern Occident are at last prepared to seek and hear the voice that India has heard. Just as in the period of the deflation of the revealed gods of the Vedic pantheon, so today revealed Western religion has been devaluated... Our professions of faith have no longer any discernible bearing either on our public conduct or on our private state of hope. The sacraments do not work on many of us their spiritual transformation; we are bereft and at a loss where to turn. Meanwhile, our academic secular philosophies are concerned with information rather than with that redemptive transformation which our souls require. And this is the reason why a glance at the face of India may assist us to discover and recover something of ourselves.